For the Birds Radio Program: Ice Storms
This year March came in like a lion, with a blizzard, and went out like a lion, with an ice storm. This time my neighborhood didn’t get hit too bad, but I heard from one woman in Superior who found a frozen crow on the ground, and a frozen robin she first saw in a tree but it eventually fell to the ground as well.
Weather has always affected birds who are, after all, right out there in it, naked as jaybirds. Pleasant weather and favorable winds during migration are of course good for birds, but many situations, from storms to droughts, can kill individuals and flocks, and sometimes even decimate local populations. Worst of all weather situations is probably hurricanes, and Gulf coast ones happen during the worst time of year, fall migration, when maximum numbers of birds are in the Gulf. The storm itself is bad enough, but hurricane damage to vegetation and, in the case of ones that damage inhabited areas, leakage from flooded automobiles and houses or industrial areas can make areas toxic as well.
Hail kills birds outright—there was even a case in 1938 of hail killing two California Condors. In July, 1953, in Alberta, Canada, two huge hailstorms killed 150,000 ducks and geese and countless smaller birds. The following year another hailstorm in the same area killed roughly the same number. Late fall hailstorms in New Mexico in 1960 killed thousands of Sandhill Cranes.
Lightning kills birds, too. John James Audubon watched two nighthawks struck down by lightning at Indian Key, Florida. Alexander Sprunt watched four Double-crested Cormorants drop out of a flock after a sharp flash of lightning. He picked them up—they were all dead, but he found no marks on them. 34 White Pelicans dropped out of a flock flying over Nelson, Nebraska, after a bolt of lightning—they were all dead, and some bore singed feathers. There are also records of Bald Eagles and Osprey killed when lightning struck their nest trees.
Prolonged cold spells in spring can kill many newly-arrived migrants. In May, 2003, we had this kind of situation up here in north country. Throughout northern Minnesota there were reports of people picking up dead warblers, flycatchers, and other insectivores. In my own yard, I had unprecedented numbers of birds at my feeders, especially coming to mealworms, including as many as 7 Scarlet Tanagers, 7 orioles, and 30 Cape May Warblers. One female Bobolink even deserted proper habitat to visit my feeders.
Fog during migration can kill huge numbers of birds, by disorienting them. Sometimes they mill around communications towers or lighted tall buildings, crashing into one another and the structure. On one foggy weekend in the 1960s, as many as 35,000 migrants were killed at a single Eau Claire, Wisconsin, TV tower.
But up here, the worst case scenario weather-wise is almost definitely spring blizzards and ice storms. Cavity-roosting birds have sometimes been literally entombed in their trees by thick ice. And when ice coats feathers, birds lose both their insulation and their mobility. During World War II, loons in a flock flying over the Atlantic dropped down onto a destroyer, their wings encased in ice. As my Superior correspondent sadly discovered, there’s just not much we can do to help. The best we can do is ensure that our backyard habitat provides a good assortment of trees and shrubs for cover and that our plants and feeders provide a good assortment of food.
This morning the sun finally came out, and I awoke to a robin singing away. Life can be ever so tough for birds, but they soldier on, and even after a long, harsh storm, a ray of sunshine can fill them with exuberant song. We could learn a lot from them.